Gendered Language

Robert Krulwich has a typically brilliant piece on Shakespeare, roses, gendered language and the latest version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Boroditsky proposes that because the word for "bridge" in German -- die brucke -- is a feminine noun, and the word for "bridge" in Spanish -- el puente -- is a masculine noun, native speakers unconsciously give nouns the characteristics of their grammatical gender.

"Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way?" she asks in a recent essay. "It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender."

When asked to describe a "key" -- a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish -- German speakers were more likely to use words such as "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated" and "useful." Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny" and "tiny."

This reminds me of that great William James quote: "We ought," he wrote, "to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue, or a feeling of cold." What is James talking about? He's pointing out that language creates the illusion of transparency. We pretend that we're just describing the "substantive parts" of the world - those nouns we match together with adjective and verbs in neat sentences - but this substance is inevitably shaded by "transitive" mental processes we aren't aware of, such as gendered nouns and quirks of grammar. In other words, language is a constraint on thought, a concrete riverbed for the stream of consciousness.

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This finding speaks to the graded and distributive (shared) nature of cortical representation. From this vantage point one would predict that German speakers raised in an all-boys school would think of or identify adjectives for masculine words like "key" more quickly, since their mental representation of "key" is strengthened by their greater exposure to males. There are problems with this design (are German keys actually different from Spanish keys? maybe this was addressed in the actual study), but must admit that I have yet to read a paper by Lera Boroditsky with which I was not fascinated and surprised.

By Ahnald Brownsh… (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

...language is a constraint on thought, a concrete riverbed for the stream of consciousness...

I think that's overstating it. If we stick with the 'river' metaphor, it's more like earthen riverbanks. For example, the constraints can be eroded in particular directions - we learn, and make up, new words all the time. I'd further argue that we can sometimes 'overflow the banks' and get really new ideas. (How frequently this happens can be debated, but look that some of the really big ideas: evolution, relativity, or quantum mechanics.)

Programmers see this all the time. Different computer languages make different things easy or hard to express, but at a fundamental level they are all 'equivalent' - any language that's Turing-complete can express anything that any other Turing-complete language can express. Particular languages can make some things much more practical (ANSI C isn't object-oriented, but you can do object programming in C; the language just doesn't do the bookkeeping for you) but programmers even enjoy doing things impractically. (Look up INTERCAL sometime: a language designed to make things as hard as possible while still being Turing-complete.)

In the 1970's philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigarary wrote a book called Je, Tu, Nous on this very topic. While I do not agree with her main thesis (that sex is the originary and unbridgeable difference) she was quite clear about the way subjects interpreted objects differently based on gendering language. it is interesting to see that the sciences are now engaging this same problematic and it is disturbing to note that the findings are inherently gendered as well - who is to say that the second key description is any more feminine than the first? It would be important to know if key size is on the whole smaller in spain than in the other test site, etc.

Did they determine which adjectives they'd consider feminine and which ones they'd consider masculine, before the study began? How did they incorporate "masculine" or "feminine" adjectives that were mentioned, but had not been on their list?

Thanks to our mother language we are able to understand and classify world and all objects at all. Yet the same mother language limits our perception obtruding unconscious stereotypes, as it was shown in the article. I guess that's why learning new languages provides us not only with the ability to communicate in verbal, but also literally 'broaden our minds'. We become conscious of our own minds' structures, non-verbal assumptions and limits, yet we can overcome them.
By the way - it would be interesting to compare German-spreakers and Spanish-speakers with bilingual. How would they assign?

"...language is a constraint on thought, a concrete riverbed for the stream of consciousness..."

Really? Isn't language necessary for thought? Is there non-verbal, non-lingual thought?
Language may be a constraint on feeling,experience, perception, even creativity and expression, but how is thought possible without language?
I really hope you check out Abram's book.

I am pretty disturbed by the bold linguistic claims being put out there without any mentioning of the large amount of dissent against the Whorfian hypothesis. In order for Boroditsky's claim to be confirmed -- that gendered nouns cause people to think about objects as masculine or feminine -- she would have to show that these differences are created by the language and not the surrounding culture or environment or explained by some other factor, of which there are many to consider in this case. That is, it is really unlikely that she is truly isolating "language" apart from culture, background, etc which deeply influence something as basic as the way people even take psychological tests. In order for linguistic determinism to be supported, as you casually referenced the Whorfian-Sapir hypothesis, she would have to show that 1. The speaker of another language finds it extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible, to think of a bridge as "sturdy" (if they see it as feminine) and 2. That the differences observed, again, are not related to cultural differences and value systems perhaps reflected by the language, but not controlled or created by it.

I would highly recommend Pinker's "Stuff of Thought" to get a good view of what is problematic about the Whorfian hypothesis (or, at the very least, what it needs to address). To say that language influences or frames thought -- rather than the Whorfian claim that it CAUSES thought -- is definitely there, but to say that language causes it or constrains it is something entirely different. Even in language's ability to frame an event, as Pinker says "people have the cognitive means to evaluate whether a framing is faithful to reality; the framing does not lock their minds into one way of construing the world"

I have always wished to explore the idea that the women's suffrage movement made the most headway in the countries where nouns don't necessarily convey a gender specific identifier. It's been an unexplored bit of research that has sat in a musty box at the back of my brain for over a decade now.

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